Films and travel are inextricably linked. Sure, one of them is enjoyed from the comfort of your couch while the other requires traversing the globe, but both involve a simultaneous experience of escape and immersion. Paradoxically, the inner desire to make ourselves horizontal and flip through Netflix’s endless offerings for a few hours is the same need we tap into when we book a flight. We’re hoping to break away from the monotony of our everyday routine, but in doing so, we’re seeking complete immersion in a new world.
It’s probably because of this unlikely similarity that adventure films are some of the most popular. We all have our preferred genres, but when it comes time to put our differences aside and agree on a movie everyone in the room can enjoy, isn’t it often the one involving high stakes, exciting settings, and intense action sequences?
Adventure is one of the few universal languages.
As with adventure books, however, discussions revolving around the best adventure films often shuffle through a lot of the same titles. It’s not that there aren’t plenty to choose from. Rather, in our busy lives, we’re likely to turn to the popular titles because we know we’re probably going to enjoy them. With that in mind, here’s a list of suggestions based on your interest in oft-mentioned adventure movies.
If you liked “127 Hours” then you might like “Touching the Void”
Almost everyone in the adventure community is familiar with the nauseating details of canyoneer Aron Ralston’s survival tale. The story’s narrative structure is fairly straightforward: hiker falls down a crevice and gets trapped under a boulder; hiker cuts off own arm to free himself from boulder; hiker survives. However, the inner journey Ralston embarks upon during his five-day ordeal is much more complicated. He experiences depression, hallucinations, and regret en route to his horrifying, yet necessary decision.
Ralston’s 2004 memoir, “Between A Rock and a Hard Place” (a title so perfect, by the way, that you have to wonder if Ralston imagined it before the arm was fully separated), was dramatized by director Danny Boyle in the 2010 film “127 Hours.” The movie was immediately launched into the national conversation, not only for its six Oscar nominations, but for the reports that early screenings induced fainting and seizures in several audience members due to the gruesomeness of the amputation scene. Whether you stomached it or not, “127 Hours” is certainly one of the most well-known survival movies of all time.
“Touching the Void” chronicles a similar survival story, both in its incredibility and the way it hinges on an unthinkable decision. The incident in question took place not in a canyon but on a mountain — specifically, the 20,813-foot (6,344-meter) Siula Grande located in the Peruvian Andes. In 1985, climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates summited this peak via the previously unclimbed West Face, but during the descent, Simpson broke his leg, forcing Yates to help lower him to Base Camp with a rope. At one point, blinded by a storm and increasing darkness, Yates inadvertently lowered Simpson over a cliff face, leaving them in a perilous predicament. Simpson couldn’t climb up the rope and Yates couldn’t pull him back up. Most concerningly, because of the raging storm, they couldn’t communicate. Facing the difficult choice between personal survival and mutual death, Yates ultimately made the decision to cut the rope.
Miraculously, and unbeknownst to his partner, Simpson survived the consequent fall, and what followed became one of the most famous stories in mountaineering history. With no food, no water, and one broken leg, Simpson spent three days navigating the glacier in an attempt to return to Base Camp before Yates departed for civilization. The film adaptation resists the notes of Hollywood dramatization and sensationalism for which “127 Hours” received much criticism, simply reenacting the events and overlaying them with direct testimony from those involved. If Ralston’s story left you craving more tales of survival, this is the perfect place to start.
Almost anyone who’s completed a long-distance backpacking trek (e.g. Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, etc.) will agree that it’s as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. “It’s a journey of self-discovery,” they’ll say. “You find yourself on the trail.” To an outsider, that might sound like a load of fortune-cookie hullabaloo. But there is a real meaning behind those overused axioms, and both “Wild” and “the Way” are brilliant in the way they spell them out.
“Wild” made the list of both oft-mentioned adventure books and movies — but for good reason. The book, which is Cheryl Strayed’s vividly emotional account of her hike along the 2,650-mile (4,265-kilometer) Pacific Crest Trail, is a masterpiece of adventure literature. What sets it apart from other thru-hiking memoirs is how deeply personal it is. Through its pages, we’re served a generous helping of adventurous escapades, but more memorable are Strayed’s accounts of her mother’s death from lung cancer and her own subsequent struggles with divorce, drug use, and identity — and how her journey of self-discovery helped her reckon with all of it. Luckily, in the hands of director Jean-Marc Vallée (who also directed “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Big Little Lies”), the 2014 movie is no money-grabbing Hollywood adaptation. Combining eye-catching cinematography, a spectacular soundtrack, and unflinchingly honest portrayals from Reese Witherspoon (who plays Strayed) and Laura Dern (who plays Bobbi, Strayed’s mother), it accurately captures the tone of Strayed’s prose.
If you’re looking for more thru-hiking cinematic adventure, please don’t turn to the 2015 adaptation of Bill Bryson’s “a Walk in the Woods.” It’s a fun movie, visually — offering sweeping shots of the famous Appalachian Trail throughout — but unlike “Wild,” it misses the mark tonally, turning Bryson’s witty protagonist into more of a curmudgeon-y geezer.
Instead, opt for 2010’s “the Way,” which was written and directed by Emilio Estevez and follows an American doctor (Martin Sheen) who travels to France to pick up the ashes of his son Daniel. Daniel (portrayed by Emilio Estevez) had died while hiking the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, and to pay homage to him, his father decides not only to acquire his ashes but to hike the route himself.
If you find yourself turned off by the plot’s religious connotations, don’t be. The film captures the true spirit of pilgrimage — not in a sacred sense, but as the idea of putting one foot in front of the other in order to move through tragedy. Like Strayed, the protagonist of “the Way” deals with unimaginable trauma when he encounters the trailhead, but by the end of his journey, his spirit is renewed.
If you liked “the Secret Life of Walter Mitty” then you might like “the Darjeeling Limited”
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.”
That quote is the motto of the fictional version of Life magazine where Walter Mitty works in the 2013 film — and the movie feels like a perfect encapsulation of it. Panned by critics upon release for its wildly liberal take on the four-page short story by James Thurber, “the Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has grown somewhat of a cult following among the travel community for its spot-on depiction of wanderlust. Watching it delivers the same sort of dopamine rush as clicking “confirm” when purchasing airline tickets. With a rocking soundtrack, breathtaking shots of Iceland, Greenland, and Afghanistan, and a soul-shaking message about the necessity of seeking out adventure, the film inspires all who watch it to pack up their suitcase and hit the road.
In matters of tone and style, “the Darjeeling Limited” couldn’t be further from Ben Stiller’s film. Wes Anderson’s 2007 dramedy has all the hallmarks of the auteur’s other films: obsessively vivid and symmetrical cinematography, slow-motion walking shots, a quirky plot and dialogue, and a visual and aural style that ooze whimsy. But the underlying message is the same.
The film follows the three Whitman brothers (played by Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman), who reconvene a year after their father’s funeral for a bonding trip aboard the eponymous locomotive, a sleeper train that travels the countryside of the Indian Himalayas. To be sure, the brothers are not model travelers. They act rudely toward the train stewards, indulge in Indian painkillers, and even illegally buy a venomous snake and bring it into their cabin (and yes, it gets loose). But as the journey progresses and they begin to see more and more of the beautiful country, the brothers go through an important change. By the end of the film, they seem to have grasped how important it is to see the world… to find each other and to feel.
If nothing else, though, you can watch “the Darjeeling Limited” simply as a form of luggage porn.
If you liked “Into the Wild” then you might like “One Week”
Like “Wild,” “Into the Wild” comes up in both discussions of great adventure movies and great adventure books. Perhaps that’s because most travelers can understand Christopher McCandless’ decision to abandon all of his possessions and walk into the Alaskan wilderness, even if they don’t agree with it. There’s something appealing about the idea of dropping everything and living a life of adventure. Even the reporter who traced the steps McCandless took before his death spent the middle section of the book examining his own post-grad flirtations with Thoreau-esque independence.
The Canadian adventure film “One Week,” though completely fictional, resembles “Into the Wild” in its understanding of these wanderlust-inspired urges we all occasionally harbor. The film opens with its protagonist, an elementary school teacher named Ben Tyler, being informed that he has stage-four cancer. He requires immediate treatment if he wants to survive — so, naturally, he buys a motorcycle and embarks on a solo journey across Canada. It’s not the most logical decision, of course, but if told we were most likely going to die, who among us wouldn’t spend our remaining time checking one final adventure off our now-very-important bucket lists?
If you liked “Eat, Pray, Love” then you might like “Lost in Translation”
“Eat, Pray, Love,” the 2010 adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir delivers exactly what it advertises. In the wake of a divorce, Gilbert (portrayed by Julia Roberts) embarks on a journey of self-discovery — where she learns to truly enjoy food in Italy, understands the power of prayer in India, and discovers what it means to love (not only others, but herself) in Indonesia. These are the concrete values we travel for, the knowledge and experience we’re promised with every trip we book.
The values championed in 2003’s “Lost in Translation” are a little harder to define, though through Sofia Coppola’s masterful script and direction, travelers will come to recognize them on the screen as well. The movie tells the story of an aging American movie actor (Bill Murray) and a recent college graduate (Scarlett Johansson) who develop an unlikely friendship when they meet each other in Tokyo, Japan.
But this baseline description of the movie’s plot doesn’t do it justice. It’s about so much more than just boy-meets-girl. It’s about the true nature of adventure and the parallel feelings of humility, confusion, and wonder we experience when immersed in a foreign country. It captures how isolating it can feel to be in a new city on your own, yet how strikingly magical everything appears through that veil of isolation. Most importantly, however, it portrays the universality of these complex emotions, and how two souls can be brought together through the mutual journey of discovery.
Header image by Ken Carvajal